WJC: Final impressions

January 13, 2018
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The 2018 IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championship came to a close last Friday with Team Canada claiming the gold medal in a memorable fold medal game against Sweden.

It was an honor to cover an international tournament such as this, and I continue to believe that it is the best hockey tournament out there. Thanks to those of you who stuck with me throughout the two weeks that I spent going back and forth between KeyBank Center and HarborCenter.

There was a lot to take out of this year's tournament, whether it was Casey Mittelstadt's MVP performance, the excitement of 2018 top prospect Rasmus Dahlin, the emergence of the Czech Republic, and much more.

Here were some of the most notable things that stood out from the 2018 tournament:
 

  • Casey Mittelstadt is the real deal

It was quite clear that Mittelstadt may have been the best U.S. forward heading into the tournament, but he comes out of the 2018 World Juniors as one of the best NHL prospects in all of hockey.

The first round pick (8th overall) of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2017 NHL Draft ended his tournament with four goals and eleven points, and finished tied for the tournament lead in scoring with Carolina Hurricanes prospect Martin Necas.

The list of accolades for Mittelstadt in this tournament is impressive:

  • Player of the Game - December 26th vs. Denmark
  • Player of the Game - December 29th vs. Canada (at New Era Field)
  • Top-three player for Team USA
  • Media All-Star
  • Best Forward of the Tournament
  • Tournament MVP

Of the eleven points he produced in the tournament, nine of them came in the preliminary round, including three multi-point games against Denmark, Canada and Finland.

Mittelstadt's skill set was on full display throughout the tournament. He skated with determination and speed, he constantly found the puck on his stick, and handled the puck with confidence while creating plenty of scoring chances for him and his teammates.

Perhaps the play of the tournament came in Team USA's loss to Slovakia as Mittelstadt tied the game late in the third period with a spectacular individual effort. Mittelstadt caught up to the Slovakian puck handler and managed to stick check him from behind to take control of the puck. Mittelstadt then used his speed to get into the zone, then stick-handled around the defender and past the goalie to tie the game.

The U.S. ended up losing the game as Slovakia came back to score moments later to take a 3-2 lead.

By the playoff rounds, teams started to game plan for Mittelstadt by doing what they could to take him out of play and not give him the time and space to make plays. While they managed to keep Mittelstadt off the scoresheet, he was still making plays and creating scoring chances for his teammates.

When the United States started to fall back and struggle with their play, it was often Mittelstadt who was the spark that got play back in the Americans' favor, and that play carried on shift after shift.

As for the rest of the Americans, the tournament certainly did not pan out the way that many had expected. The Americans failed to defend the gold on home-ice for a third straight try, but still managed to come away with some hardware after a 9-3 win over the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game.

New York Islanders prospect Kieffer Bellows was another standout for the United States as he scored a record nine goals for the Americans, breaking Jeremy Roenick's old record of eight set back in the 1989 World Junior championship in Anchorage, Alaska. Bellows' nine goals also put him first overall in the tournament for goals scored. He also was named as a Media All-Star at forward.

Sweden's Markus Naslund holds the all-time record for goals in a single World Junior championship with 13 back in the 1993 tournament.

The U.S. finished the tournament as the second best offensive team with 35 goals scored as a team, only trailing Canada by four goals.

Where the U.S. struggled in the tournament was in net and on the blue line.

The defensive group played some solid hockey throughout the tournament, but occasionally started to scramble when the play started to get heated in their own end. In their stunning loss to the Slovaks in the preliminary round, the defense started to slide around and get desperate when they faced he pressure late in the game. With 2:08 left to play, this sequence put many players out of position as Samuel Bucek carried the puck all over the zone before scoring the go-ahead goal off of his own rebound chance.

Calgary Flames prospect Adam Fox played well in the tournament with a goal and five points in his seven games. He was named as a top-three player for the United States, but looked, at times, to hold on to the puck too long when he needed to get rid of it to make a play and create some offense. Fox also got a bit rushed with the puck at times in his own zone, which led to some turnovers.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Joseph Woll played decent in net for the Americans, but certainly was not as good as he should have been. Woll finished the tournament with a 3-2 record and a shutout, but registered a 2.71 goals-against average and a .886 save-percentage in five games played.

Backup Jake Oettinger (Dallas Stars) played just as decent for the Americans with a 2.77 goals against average, a .888 save-percentage and a 2-0 record. However, he only got one look in net during the preliminary round against Canada at New Era Field before playing in relief of Woll in the semifinal and starting in the bronze medal game.

I felt head coach Bob Motzko should have given Oettinger another look during the preliminary round, especially with the way Woll struggled in goal against Slovakia.

But in the end, the U.S. still comes away with their third medal in the last three tournaments played. USA Hockey continues to make strides in the right direction at the World Juniors, but will face a challenging group in next year's tournament with Sweden, Finland, and Slovakia set to compete against them.
 

  • Sweden comes up short again

Sweden's reign of power through the preliminary round continued in Buffalo as they stretched their winning streak to 44 games. Sweden has not lost in the preliminary round since the 2007 World Juniors when they suffered a 3-2 overtime loss to the United States.

Even though the Swedes dominated the preliminary round once again, they came up just short in the gold medal game with a 3-1 loss to the Canadians.

The past three tournament weren't so kind for the Swedes as they went medal-less with three straight losses in the bronze medal game. And even though a silver medal is still quite an accomplishment, no kid is happy to finish in second place. Just ask New York Rangers prospect and Swedish captain Lias Andersson, who decided to throw his silver medal to a fan behind the bench.

Team Sweden Captain Lias Andersson wasn't happy with the Silver as he threw it to the stands, the guy who caught the silver medal was wearing THREEE jerseys. -- pic.twitter.com/iyPUT6C5Lc

— Robert Söderlind (@HockeyWebCast) January 6, 2018

However, the Swedes proved to be the most well-rounded team of the entire tournament.

Sweden had the best goaltender of the tournament as Filip Gustavsson (Pittsburgh Penguins) started six of Sweden's seven games with a 1.81 goals-against average, and a .924 save-percentage with a 5-1 record.

Sweden's defense was led by 2018 NHL Draft eligible prospect Rasmus Dahlin, who averaged a remarkable 23:08 of total ice-time as a 17-year old. Dahlin finished his second World Junior championship with six assists in seven games, as was selected as the best defenseman of the tournament by the Directorate.

His defensive partner, Vegas Golden Knights prospect Erik Brannstrom, also played very well throughout the course of the tournament. He skated well in both ends of the ice, and was even better when he found the puck on his stick. He put up a goal and three assists in seven games while averaging 21:32 of ice-time per-game.

As a whole, the defense played well physically, helped contribute to the offense, and shut things down in their own end from start to finish in the tournament.

The offense was deep, with dangerous offensive threats from top to bottom. This Swedish group, as most are, were also valuable in the defensive end with some strong, solid play in their own end.

Sabres prospect Alex Nylander was one of three Swedish forward who led the group in scoring with seven points. Nylander only scored once in the whole tournament, but he contributed with six helpers while averaging the most minutes played by a forward at 18:40.

It certainly was not the same tournament for Nylander as he had last year in Canada, but he didn't necessarily have to be the offensive juggernaut. This year, Nylander took on more of a leadership role with the team, and served as one of the alternate captains for this Swedish squad. His best game of the tournament (statistically) came in the preliminary round against the Czech Republic when he scored his only goal and added two assists in a 3-1 win. Nylander was selected as Sweden's player of the game that day.

His best game overall came in the gold medal game with his all-around play in both ends of the rink. Against Canada, Nylander skated fast and was constantly on the move, while also creating some great scoring chances for his teammates against a skilled Canadian roster. He finished the night, however, pointless with three shots on goal in 13:52 of ice-time.

While Nylander did put up some decent production this year, he certainly did not perform up to expectations. Not to say that this year's tournament was a failure for him or that he had a bad tournament, but it certainly could have been better for the 19-year old in his third consecutive tournament.

Vancouver Canucks prospect Elias Pettersson was arguably Sweden's best offensive player in the tournament, even though he never received any honors from the coaches, media, or Directorate. Pettersson finished the tournament with five goals and seven points, but was even more impressive with his skating, puck handling and playmaking skills. He was also a spark plug for the Swedes when they needed some offense, making some spectacular end-to-end rushes and scoring some momentum-shifting goals.

Andersson was the other Swede with seven points, with six goals and one assist in seven games.

The Sabres had another prospect with the Swedes this tournament as Marcus Davidsson centered, perhaps, the best line of the entire tournament.

Davidsson was part of the line with Washington Capitals prospect Axel Jonsson Fjallby and Glenn Gustafsson, who combined to play some key minutes in both ends of the rink. The line combined for five goals and 10 points in this year's tournament, and played with speed, tenacity, grit and skill to make the trio a lethal combination. Davidsson put up a goal and two assists himself, but was often with Jonsson Fjallby, especially on the penalty kill.

It was a pleasant sight to see Davidsson step up and play the way he did. Buffalo's second round pick (37th overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft showed some great speed, offensive skill, and strong play in his own end that can make him a nice piece to the puzzle down the road.

 

  • Czech, please

Entering this year's tournament, the Czech Republic was not a team that many had pegged to play as well as they did or advance to the semifinals. For the first time since the 2005 tournament in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the Czechs advanced to the semifinals before losing to Canada, and then the United States in the bronze medal game to finish fourth.

Nonetheless, their performance overall was very impressive, and enough to make people take notice of their hockey program.

The Czechs opened the tournament with a win over th Russians, who did not put up a good tournament for themselves. In that game, the Czechs dominated for the first 55 minutes of that game before giving the Russians a glimmer of hope towards the end.

Aside from a loss to the Swedes, the Czech Republic finished second in Group B, and advanced to the quarterfinal round to meet up with Finland.

The Finns were relentless in that quarterfinal game, out-shooting the Czechs 54-30 in 70 minutes of play. However, the Czechs were relentless throughout the contest, and forced overtime with a late goal from 2018 NHL Draft eligible prospect, Filip Zadina. Zadina tipped a shot from the point that managed to find its was through the five-hole of Sabres prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to tie the game and go to the extra 10 minutes of play. In the shootout, Kristian Reichel and Martin Necas scored as goalie Josef Korenar (San Jose Sharks) stopped four of the five shooters he faced to lift the Czechs over the Finns.

The final two games of the tournament did not end well for the Czechs as they were out-shot 78-55, but out-scored 16-5 by both Canada and the U.S. The team fought valiantly until the very end, but the offensive firepower of the U.S. and Canada was just too much to overcome.

Zadina ended his tournament with seven goals and an assist, and was named as a Media All-Star and a top-three player for the Czechs.

On the blue line, Sabres prospect Vojtech Budik stepped up in a big way as the second defenseman on the top-pairing along with Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, Libor Hajek. Budik ended his tournament with five assists in seven games played, and really showed his reliability in both ends of the rink. Budik skated well throughout the tournament, was a good shut down force in his own zone, and contributed enough in the offensive zone to help the Czechs advance as far as they did.

Budik has struggled in his time as a Sabres prospect with difficulties in his overall game with skating, puck moving, and vision. However, this tournament may have helped save his chances of a future with the Sabres organization. If general manager Jason Botterill does not sign Budik by June 1st, Budik will be eligible to re-enter the NHL Draft this year.

In goal, Korenar split most of his duties with 2018 NHL Draft eligible prospect, Jakub Skarek. However, Korenar was the better of the two goalies, even if the 4.49 goals-against average and .878 save-percentage doesn't say so.

The Czechs will look to repeat their impressive performance next year, but it will not be easy in Group A with Canada, Russia, Switzerland and Denmark.

 

  • Top of the draft class

A number of top prospects were in action during the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo.

Rasmus Dahlin was the top draft eligible prospect playing in the tournament, and really did a lot to start separating himself from the pack.

Dahlin finished the tournament with six assists for the Swedes, and became the first Swedish defenseman under the age of 18 to be named as the best defenseman of the World Juniors.

Draft analysts have Dahlin ranked as the top prospect across the bar heading into June's draft, and the comparisons drawn to him are eye-opening. The most pervalent name that comes about is Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, and that is probably the ceiling as to who Dahlin can become.

The talent is certainly there for the 17-year old defenseman. His skating prowess is off the charts with his speed, his shiftiness and his strength. In the Swedish Hockey League, his speed and footwork has made grown men and former NHLers look silly. That's exemplified when the puck is on Dahlin is on his stick as he shows no fear when carrying the puck. The confidence shines bright in Dahlin with the puck anywhere near him, and players want the youngster to have the puck.

Some of that was on display at this year's World Juniors as well:

We can confirm that Rasmus Dahlin is good at hockey.#WorldJuniors pic.twitter.com/aJSIH499fy

— BarDown (@BarDown) January 1, 2018

Rasmus Dahlin doing Rasmus Dahlin things.

--#WorldJuniors ---- pic.twitter.com/jFI69zsuKU

— BarDown (@BarDown) January 4, 2018

Dahlin also shows some good awareness in all three zones of the ice, and uses his vision to start a breakout or make a play to create an offensive chance. Also, his 6' 2" and 183-pound frame allows him move around with ease on the ice while bring big and strong enough to fight off some pressure anywhere on the ice.

If he has some work to do in his game, it is his shot. Puck movement and passing is not an issue with Dahlin, but he does not have a powerful or threatening shot, especially from the point. Dahlin can certainly score and put the puck in the net, but he can improve with his shot to become that complete overall threat in the offensive zone.

After Dahlin, the group of offensive weapons that stood out in the tournament is very promising.

***

Brady Tkachuk led that group with nine points this tournament (3 goals, 6 assists), and proved to be another talent that should be taken very high in the NHL Draft. Brady is the son of former NHLer Keith and the younger brother of Calgary Flames forward Matthew, and showed that he is gifted with the same amount of talent in that family tree.

Like his dad and brother, Tkachuk showed off the chippiness in his game and the willingness to play physical and get his nose into the dirty areas. At the same time, Tkachuk displayed his offensive skill set and ability to score goals and make some nice plays to set up his teammates. He has a great release, he's crafty with the puck on his stick, and gets into good position with his size and strength to make plays and get good scoring chances. Some have said that Brady has the potential to be more offensively gifted than his dad or brother, and you can understand why in this tournament.

Where Tkachuk may be different than his dad and brother is his skating ability. While Tkachuk is not too flashy on his feet, he has good, clean footwork and uses his powerful strength to generate some good speed on the rush. It's something that may be able to separate him from his brother in Calgary, who has not been known to be as good of a skater.

Tkachuk went from being a prospect who could go in the top-five picks of the NHL Draft to one who is almost certain to go in the top-five. As his head coach Bob Motzko said, he's like a bulldog on the ice because he wants to get in on everything.

***

As mentioned in the third bullet point, Filip Zadina racked up the goals in this year's tournament with seven on 37 shots on goal. Zadina loves to get pucks to the net, and he knows he can score goals and produce points. That's confidence.

Zadina is not an all-world skater who can fly with blazing speed, but he possesses a great shot and can make some brilliant plays in the offensive zone. If the puck finds his stick, you can almost guarantee that he's going to try and put the puck in the back of the net. He's been able to do that frequently in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Halifax Mooseheads, and it was on full display in Buffalo.

The 18-year old Czech is another player who is a certain top-10 pick in June's NHL Draft, but with this tournament and his continued success in the QMJHL, he certainly can jump into the top-five mix.

***

Quinn Hughes is the only other defensive prospect who made a name for himself in the tournament, and is another prospect who will likely gain interest in the top-10 of the NHL Draft.

Hughes really separated himself among the defensive group in this draft with his skating and puck carrying abilities on the rush. The 18-year old is a smooth and fluid skater, and shows great speed once he gets the motor going. He is also very elusiveness to maintain puck control, as a way to make up for his 5' 9" and 168-pound frame. And while he does not bring size to the table, he is strong and tough to contain.

Quinn Hughes starts a nice play in the defensive zone to set up #NHLBruins prospect Trent Frederic for the 4-0 goal. pic.twitter.com/EaZSN3bbB7

— Janik Beichler (@JanikBeichler) January 5, 2018

Hughes currently plays at the University of Michigan, and can greatly benefit from playing against college players who are tough to play against compared to playing junior hockey. As long as he continues to skate well and play some solid hockey in both ends of the ice, he will still go in the top-10 of the draft.

***

One other draft eligible prospect stood out in this tournament, and that was Isac Lundestrom from Sweden.

It was a slow start for Lundestrom in the first few games, but really finished strong for the Swedes, especially in the playoff rounds. He scored twice in the quarterfinals against Slovakia, and was honored as the Player of the Game in the win. In the semifinal and the gold medal game, while the production was not there in terms of points, Lundestrom skated very well and used his speed to create some quality chances while playing on Sweden's third line.

Lundestrom finished the tournament with his two goals and 10 shots on goal while averaging 13:48 of ice-time.

There is plenty for the 18-year old to work on in the time leading up to the draft with his overall game, however he is still projected to find himself getting taken somewhere in the top-20 picks. With a strong finish to his season in the SHL, there's a chance he can land himself close to the top-10.

***

Andrei Svechnikov is projected to be a top-three pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, but his tournament did not go so well as others.

Svechnikov still picked up five assists for Russia in five games, but was definitely not used as much as head coach Valeri Bragin should have used him. However, Svechnikov maybe did not produce as much on offense as much as Bragin maybe wanted with just four shots total through five games and no goals.

While Svechnikov can put the puck in the back of the net, his playmaking skill set is what makes his such a high-valued prospect. The 17-year old did make some really nice passes throughout the tournament and skated with some good speed, but was not as contributive on offense as he could have been.

Although his tournament was kind of a dud, the young Russian is still projected to go as the top forward in this year's NHL Draft. He just has to keep up the production in the Ontario Hockey League with the Barrie Colts, where he has 16 goals and 26 points in 20 games played.

 

  • No Finnish

Finland was picked by many before the 2018 tournament to win the gold medal with a good combination of solid defense, adequate goaltending, and a good amount of offensive firepower up front. However, the Finns put up an overall lousy performance and finished sixth in the tournament.

The defensive group was the best group on paper before the tournament, consisting of five first round picks in the NHL Draft, and also a second and third round pick. Overall, this defensive group was a disappointment, combining for just 15 points, and going just 64.3-percent on the penalty kill. Although they did a nice job of allowing only 132 shots to get on goal, they were expected to contribute more on offense and be a more organized unit overall.

Dallas Stars prospect Miro Heiskanen was one name who was supposed to step up for the Finns this year, but registered only two assists as he reportedly battled with an upper-body injury all tournament.

Goaltending certainly did not do much to help the Finns more as Sabres prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen did not step up the way he was expected to. Luukkonen played in all five games for Finland, registering a 2-3 record with a 3.13 goals-against average and a .878 saver percentage. His movement in the crease was excellent and his positioning was on-point, but the 18-year old gave up too many goals that he probably should have stopped. Of the 132 shots faced in the tournament, Luukkonen gave up 16 goals.

While Luukkonen certainly showed some flashes of brilliance, he needed to be better in his own crease. However, Luukkonen will have another year to bounce back as he is eligible to return to play in the 2019 tournament in Canada.

While the defense and goaltending didn't help the Finns out much in this tournament, the offense certainly didn't help with their lack of goal scoring. The Finns scored 18 goals in this year's tournament, however they only managed to scored on 8.57-percent of their shots on goal. Only Denmark had a worse shooting percentage than the Finns at 7.69-percent.

Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen was snake bitten throughout the tournament, scoring just one goal on 30 shots on goal. Tolvanen was maybe one of the better players of the preliminary round, creating scoring chances left and right, but he had a number of shot attempts that were blocked or hit the goal post.

Finland's other top scorer in the tournament was Kristian Vesalainen (Winnipeg Jets), who scored twice and registered six points overall. However, he was one of several players who showed up too little, too late for the Finns when they needed their top offensive weapons to contribute.

Well, if there is a positive to all of this, it's that Finland could have played a worse tournament. At least they didn't have to play in the relegation round like they did last year in Montreal.

 

  • Poor Belarus

The Belarusians are heading back to Division IA of the under-20 tournament after falling just short in the relegation round to Denmark.

Belarus fought hard throughout the preliminary round, only losing by a goal to both the Czech Republic and Switzerland. Even though they failed to win a game in group play, they seemed to be the favorites to beat out Denmark in relegation.

In Game 1 of relegation, Belarus took a 4-3 lead heading into the final minute of play in the third period. Instead, they fell apart as the Danes score twice in a span of 19-seconds to take he 5-4 win. Two days later, Belarus fights back with two powerplay goals in the third period to force overtime in a game they needed to win. However, they ended up falling in a five-round shootout and never having team captain Maxim Sushko (Philadelphia Flyers) get the chance to shoot for the Belarusians.

Sushko was, arguably, Belarus' best player with two goals and eight points in six games played. He finished the tournament tied for seventh in scoring on a team that had exceeded expectations throughout the tournament.

As for Denmark, they were out-scored by a 26-2 total throughout the preliminary round, but managed to survive and advance to next year's World Junior championship in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Denmark will compete in Group A of the 2019 tournament with Canada, the Czech Republic, Russia and Switzerland.

The open spot in Group B now belongs to Kazakhstan, who will compete in their first World Junior championship since 2009 in Ottawa. Their group consists of Sweden, the United States, Finland and Slovakia.